by DAVID AXE
It was a mission that stretched the airmen to their absolute limits. Coalition troops were stranded on an Afghan mountain, some 9,000 feet above sea level, somewhere in the country’s north. An element of the 33rd Rescue Squadron, normally based in Kadena, Japan, was tapped for the rescue attempt. Flying from Bagram, outside Kabul, they would recover the troops in a pair of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters. In each armored Pave Hawk ride teams of highly trained combat medics. Door gunners scan for threats and suppress them with bullet-spewing mini-guns.
Problem is, the lavishly-equipped Pave Hawk is a less than stellar performer at altitude. Under-powered for its size and over-burdened with armor and weapons, the Pave Hawk can’t reach 9,000 feet under normal circumstances. In Afghanistan flat, low south, where other HH-60Gs are based, that’s not a problem. In the mountainous north, even routine rescues can pose huge challenges. To pluck the stranded troops to safety, the 33rd took extreme measures.
They removed all the aircraft’s armor and weapons. “Stripped to the bone,” is how one rescueman described it. The airman, a member of the Air Force’s specialist pararescue jumper community, requested his name not be printed. While the equipment removal allowed the Pave Hawk to climb to 9,000 feet, it did so un-protected from gunfire and rockets, and unable to shoot back in the event of an ambush.
“The Air Force is supposed to be the most capable at personnel recovery,” the anonymous rescue jumper lamented, using the Pentagon’s term-du-jour for rescue missions. “We have one single limiting factor — the aircraft.” He recalled the days before the HH-60G’s predecessor, the larger MH-53, was retired from service. That aircraft could reach 13,000 feet without removing its armor. But times have changed. So have the Air Force’s rescue squadrons and the Pentagon’s attitude towards the squadrons’ mission.
In 2006, the Department of Defense awarded a $14 billion contract to Boeing to build a modified version of the Army’s Chinook helicopter as a replacement for the HH-60G. But Boeing’s corporate competitors successfully challenged the award on the basis that the selection process was tilted in Boeing’s favor. The 2006 contract decision was overturned.
As the lawyers labored, the Pentagon’s attitude towards the whole rescue capability gradually shifted. This April, Secretary of Defense cancelled the current rescue-chopper replacement program. “This program has a troubled acquisition history and raises the fundamental question of whether this important mission can only be accomplished by yet another single-service solution with a single-purpose aircraft,” Gates said. “We will take a fresh look at the requirement behind this program and develop a more sustainable approach.”
That approach might still include buying new helicopters for the Air Force rescuemen. But it could mean eliminating a dedicated rescue force and requiring Army and Marine helicopter units to fill in, when necessary. Army and Marine choppers already routinely perform less-demanding medical evacuation missions.
The Air Force strongly opposes that option. At Bagram and Kandahar, two of the busiest rotary-wing bases in the world, Air Force rescue squadrons — once quite secretive — have thrown open their doors to visiting reporters, in hope of drumming up support for their endangered mission. In recent weeks, reporters from Wired and The Washington Times, among others, have ridden into combat with the rescuemen, documenting their sometimes harrowing recoveries.
“As the war in Afghanistan intensifies, the pressure on military rescue teams is mounting,” Wired‘s Noah Shachtman reported during his stint with the 55th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Kandahar. “The squadron that the 55th replaced this week went on more than 400 casualty and medical evacuation missions in four moths, saving more than 400 lives. In their first two days on the job, the 55th launched 12 more missions of their own.”
Sara Carter of The Washington Times heaped praise on the pararescue jumpers. “Trained to work in almost any weather, they are physically fit enough to perform rescues deep underwater or high in the mountains.”
Airmen at Bagram said their skills cannot be duplicated by part-time substitutes. “This is our dedicated job,” Tech Sergeant Scott Lagerveld said. He stressed the rescuemen’s ability to plan missions quickly, modify plans on the fly, and fly anywhere, anytime — as long as their under-powered Pave Hawk allows it.
(Photo: David Axe)